Clodagh Finn: Dishonouring of women’s bodies stops now

The female body, in particular from the waist down, has been belittled, degraded, defiled and controlled for millennia. We owe it to Ruth Morrissey to make it end now, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: Dishonouring of women’s bodies stops now
The late Ruth Morrissey, seen here with husband  Paul, at the Four Courts for her High Court action over a misread cervical cancer smear test. Picture: Collins Courts

The ancient myth of the goddess Macha has been swirling around my head all week. Maybe it’s because archaeologists recently discovered a complex of Iron Age temples at the ancient capital of Ulster, which is named after her. Navan Fort, or Emain Macha, means Macha’s twins.

Incidentally, the city of Armagh (Árd Mhaca), a few short miles away, also bears her name. This otherworldly woman was clearly very important. And yet, during her time on earth, the authorities of the day dishonoured and humiliated her while she was heavily pregnant.

To retell the myth briefly, Macha was forced to race against King of Ulster Conor Mac Nessa’s prized horses to prove that a woman could not outrun his royal steed. She pleaded with him to wait until her child was born, but the king was not for turning.

She raced with the grace and speed of the wind, beating the king’s horses with seven lengths to spare. At the finish line, she collapsed and gave birth to twins in the dust. 

She fled to the otherworld with her children, a boy and a girl, and condemned the men of Ulster to feel the pain of labour whenever they needed their strength in battle. Only Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Ulster Cycle, was exempt.

It is a myth that is not as widely known as it might be, although it seems to me a perfect and powerful foreshadowing of the way women and their bodies would be disrespected down through the centuries, by the Irish church, the Irish State and its institutions.

The damage imposed by the State and its apparatus was all too painfully clear again last week with news of the death of campaigner Ruth Morrissey at the age of just 39 because of a misread cervical cancer smear test.

The scale of her battle and the depth of her mistreatment was summed up in one particularly hard-hitting paragraph in her husband Paul Morrissey’s statement.

He said: “Despite the magnitude of the harm caused to her by avoidable errors, despite the broken promise of a taoiseach [Leo Varadkar] who said no other woman would have to go to trial, despite using Ruth as a test case through the final years and months of her life, neither the HSE nor the State has ever apologised to her, and now it is too late.”

And yet, earlier this week, the politicians paid their tributes, standing up in the Dáil to recall a brave and courageous woman. O

On Wednesday, the day of Ruth Morrissey’s funeral, Paul Reid,  CEO of the HSE — the Executive that dragged her through the courts in the final years of her life — said he had written to Ruth’s husband to apologise on behalf of the HSE.

Those apologies must ring very hollow for Ruth's family. At one stage, she found herself in court facing seven lawyers representing the HSE and two American laboratories.

Those platitudes must also be infuriating to Ruth’s fellow CervicalCheck campaigner Lorraine Walsh who has said that her life and her body would have been completely different if her smear test had been correct.

And they must rankle with Vicky Phelan, that valiant justice-seeker, not to mention the families of the 221 other women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal. 

Twenty-four of those women are already dead. It is definitely too late for them, although I can still see Emma Mhic Mhathúna standing on the steps of the High Court wearing a stunning red dress. She was defiant. And courageous. And dying.

Though, she did not see it that way. After securing a settlement of €7.5million for her five children, she said: “I was not going to come into court a victim. I came in a victor.”

That same crusading spirit is evident in Sling the Mesh, a campaign involving thousands of women in Northern Ireland and Britain fighting for change after they were left with life-changing injuries following vaginal mesh surgery — a procedure for stress urinary incontinence.

An independent review published earlier this month found that many lives were ruined because patient concerns were dismissed as 'women’s problems'.

GPs and surgeons ignored symptoms and women's accounts of their pain. Medical reactions ranged from 'these are women’s issues' to 'it’s all in your head' and 'it’s that time of life'.

The review found that thousands might have been spared surgery and much of their subsequent suffering was entirely avoidable.

But it stops now. The disrespect and the silence at least. If we can take one shred of comfort from the shameful treatment of campaigner Ruth Morrissey, it is that one ordinary woman can take on the apparatus of the State and make it stand to account.

It is up to all of us, the ordinary people of Ireland, to make sure that no other woman goes through what she has gone through.

The best way the politicians and the HSE can comfort her family and the other affected women is to continue to implement the recommendations of a series of reports that followed the scandal. 

The new health minister Stephen Donnelly must try to get the delayed CervicalCheck tribunal back on track too.

Vicky Phelan has called for the return of cervical cancer screening to Irish laboratories but the essential issue is that it is reliable and, more importantly, that women are given their results on time.

The CervicalCheck scandal has taken a huge toll on women’s lives. Its effects are lasting, yet there is reason to hope that we are at a turning point. 

Thanks to the courage and tenacity of Ruth Morrissey, cervical cancer screening is now safer for all of our daughters.

We might honour Ruth Morrissey’s memory by making sure that the dishonouring of women, which has echoed down through the generations from the time of Macha, ends now.

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